The role of occupational health

Occupational health advisers are health professionals who specialise in workplace health issues. They have medical expertise and an understanding of the requirements of a role. They can act as consultants and advise companies on:

  • reasonable workplace adjustments
  • recruitment
  • return-to-work
  • ongoing employment
  • release of company benefits such as pensions.

If your employee has cancer, they and your company may benefit from the counsel of an occupational adviser. They could help assess whether the work of your employee is appropriate to their condition. They can also advise on issues such as considering an employee’s fitness for return-to-work after a sickness absence.

Some companies have their own in-house occupational health advisers. Other organisations contract them. This service is free (over the phone) to employees and their employers who work in a small business.

The role of occupational health

Your employee and your organisation may benefit from the help of an occupational health adviser. This is a health professional, such as a nurse or doctor, who specialises in workplace health issues. Occupational health advisers draw on their clinical knowledge and an awareness of the specific duties and demands of the employee’s role. You may consider consulting an occupational health adviser at an early stage, before going ahead with important changes or decisions affecting policies or individuals.

Most occupational health advisers serve in an advisory role for managers and employees. They can help you understand your responsibilities under employment and health and safety law. They can also inform business decisions about:

  • reasonable workplace adjustments
  • recruitment
  • return-to-work
  • ongoing employment
  • release of company benefits such as pensions.

Occupational health advisers can also assist managers in undertaking an appropriate and specific risk assessment for individual employees with a chronic health problem, such as cancer. This is to ensure, from a health and safety perspective, the appropriateness of the work the employee returns to.

When an employee has a cancer diagnosis, occupational health involvement is most likely to arise in relation to:

  • fitness for employment when considering job applicants
  • fitness for return-to-work after sickness absence
  • where there is management concern about the health and safety or performance of affected employee.


Where to find occupational health services

Occupational health services are not provided free under the NHS and are offered at the discretion of employers. Some large organisations have occupational health expertise in-house. Medium-sized and smaller organisations often access this expertise through external contracts, although some haven’t instituted any occupational health arrangements.

Many commercial companies offer occupational health consultancy or you can opt for NHS Plus, an occupational health service (that charges fees) for small and medium-sized businesses. The NHS Plus website is nhsplus.nhs.uk

Free occupational health advice is available to employees and their employers over the phone, if they work in a small business. In England, call 0800 032 6235, in Scotland, call 0800 019 2211, and in Wales, call 0845 609 6006.

In Northern Ireland, you can contact the Workplace Health Advisors at Health and Safety Executive Northern Ireland (HSENI) by calling 0800 0320 121. They provide guidance on workplace health and well-being promotion and their services are available to businesses for a fee.

Macmillan has a work and cancer e-learning module for occupational health advisers. Working with cancer: the occupational impact of cancer is a two hour module designed to refresh existing knowledge and provide new information about the occupational impact of a cancer diagnosis on working age adults. Visit macmillan.org.uk/learnzone, look under 'Health and social care professionals', then 'e-Programmes and videos'.

Back to If you're an employer

Introduction for employers

Managers play an important role in supporting employees living with cancer, or caring for someone with cancer.

How cancer affects people

Understanding how cancer treatment may affect your employee’s ability to work can help you give them the right support them.

Talking about cancer at work

It may be difficult for your employee to talk about their diagnosis, but open communication may make it easier for you to support them.

Helping your employee back into work

Making small changes to your employee’s working arrangements can make a big difference. It can help them settle back into work successfully.

Legal rights about work and cancer

In the UK, there are laws that protect employees with cancer from being treated unfairly in the workplace. This includes discrimination, harassment and victimisation.

Supporting carers at work

Carers are legally entitled to take reasonable time off work. They can also request flexible working.